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Director's Outlook: If the 'Shrew' Fits, Transport It

Theater: Believing the Bard was meant to be interpreted, Mark Rucker slips Shakespeare's comic romp into the U.S. of the '50s.

February 28, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A version of Shakespeare's "Richard III" set in an imagined fascist-era England is playing at the movies. Orange County has seen "Twelfth Night" in Gold Rush, Alice in Wonderland and Caribbean settings in recent years. So what's next, a '50s, Italian American "Taming of the Shrew"?

That's how director Mark Rucker sees it.

"There are five or six snippets of Italian in the play itself," noted Rucker, whose comedic romp opens Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. "Shakespeare set other plays in Italy but didn't [use Italian] as much--it's like street talk, with Italian phrases dropped in.

"1959 and '60 are newly nostalgic for us," said the Newport Beach-raised Rucker. "Guys were swinging bachelors; it was OK to date chicks, drink a few drinks, smoke cigarettes, all these things we know now are not so innocent. Sex roles were clearly laid out. We weren't burning bras yet.

"Forced to live within that structure, women learned how to get what they wanted. Sex and the single girl, how to manipulate your man. . . . It's an interesting time that this play absolutely fits into."

The play may fit into that time, but therein lies the rub. Kate (Cindy Katz) begins the play as a shrew and as chattel and is wooed, and won, through subjugation. Yet by play's end, Kate seems freer than she's ever been and Petruchio (Marco Barricelli) emerges as a paragon of husbandly virtue.

The fact that in the right hands the play can be hilarious helps. But many contemporary audiences can stomach its misogynist attitudes only by telling themselves that its notions reflect Shakespearean times, thereby allowing themselves some 400 years of distance.

No chance of that here. Although the Elizabethan text remains unchanged, the electric colors, slick costumes and modern sets allow us 30 years remove, tops.

"I wonder if no matter where you put the play and when, people would find it truly acceptable," Rucker said. "It doesn't matter what period you put it in; the issues are still the issues.

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"We want people to understand the journey Petruchio and Kate take, how a person could come to give themselves so much to another person. If it's real love, you can give yourself totally, be completely vulnerable and generous, and it doesn't matter how far you go--it's right. If the woman is victimized and abused and has to say those things, then it's wrong."

Rucker, now based in Los Angeles, used to usher at SCR, as did Barricelli. Rucker has since directed several plays at the facility, most recently "Later Life" on Second Stage. His Shakespeare credits include a half dozen plays for Shakespeare Santa Cruz and others at the Utah and Orlando Shakespeare festivals.

Many female writers, including specifically feminist writers, have seen through "Taming of the Shrew's" misogynist surface to a philogynist core.

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Germaine Greer, in "The Female Eunuch," finds in Kate's closing speech "the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written." Ann Thompson, in her introduction to an edition of the play, finds both blackness and a shared joke but notes that Kate and Petruchio are "going to go on to a very interesting marriage." Margaret Loftus Ranald, in "Shakespeare and His Social Context," concurs:

"Each can now play the game of human relationships to the everlasting joy and amusement of the other. . . . Thus Shakespeare has shown a surprisingly modern attitude to the taming of a wife, not by physical force, but by subtlety, art, reason and love."

Rucker sees in Kate's submission speech Thompson's "shared joke" and more.

"There's a tongue-in-cheek reading that some actresses bring. In another reading, you think she's gone mad, she's been so abused," he said. "We think our reading is truer. Petruchio and Kate shock everybody by their behavior, and they both enjoy the shocking quality.

"But the speech is also sincere. . . . Society views Kate as a monster, and [at first] she's worried about how society sees her. In the course of the play, she realizes this is not what is important, that what is important is much deeper."

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Since Orson Welles launched concept Shakespeare with his "Voodoo Macbeth" in the 1930s, it's become all the rage, and it can be very illuminating. Rucker finds a great deal of commonality between America in the 1950s and England in the 1590s. Yet many people still find the idea of transmogrified Shakespeare sacrilegious.

"There's a sense in this country that there's something somehow wrong about placing these plays in another setting," Rucker said. "People think there's a way to do Shakespeare, but even in his own time it was very imaginative and theatrical. They think we have to re-create a Globe Theater, that it's a visit to merry old England. That is not true to the spirit of the play. That is not informed complaining.

"It's much harder work when you move the play. But when you have to be very specific about the world in which it's taking place, it makes the play much more clear."

* "The Taming of the Shrew," directed by Mark Rucker, runs through March 31 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Previews today and Thursday at 8 p.m.; $17-$28. Regular run begins Friday with performances Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $28-$38. (714) 957-4033.

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